I’d been going to summer camps for eight weeks every year since I was the delicate age of seven, when most kids my age were either still being weaned or working at a blacking factory . That’s eight weeks without phone calls, emails, access to the not-yet-invented Internet—nothing but rusticity, pitchers full of what was called bug juice (Kool-Aid attracts insects, you see), and, for some, two months of homesickness. I wanted to be neither at home nor at camp. I was already looking ahead to growing up, when I could plan my own hours and days and not have to wake at some ungodly hour to the dismally upbeat Reveille.
But once Taps had been played over the camp loudspeakers and the hot dry July evening would have begun to slip down to the lake and the woods beyond like a slick of molasses; as daylight turned pale, then gray, then the kind of profound black common to the Berkshires, our counselors would tear open our imaginations with tales of horror and terror and gore. Not of monsters and ghosts, for we all knew that Frankenstein’s creature and Dracula weren’t going to hurt us: they existed in a black-and-white universe that was very obviously European and not a place you’d find a few blocks from downtown Lenox, Massachusetts. So our counselors told us stories about very ordinary people—people like us, or our parents, our neighbors or our Hebrew teachers (these were Jewish camps, after all)—people we knew and trusted who’d gone absolutely, ragingly insane and wanted only one thing: the blood and guts of ten-year-old campers, only after a prolonged period of torture, of course.
I vividly remember tales of the Sewer Maniac, an alum of the camp and now an adult living in the bowels of Manhattan, who preyed upon vulnerable little boys playing ball in the street. They showed us photos of him, an albino child who’d attended the camp back in the 1930s. He gazes out at us from the gauzy group portrait with sad rabbit eyes beneath pale eyebrows and bleached hair, and because of the stories surrounding what this little boy had become, we could only imagine him as a half-blind denizen of the tunnels beneath New York City, stomping through the puddles of shit and fording rivers of pee in search of untested young flesh. Our counselors were very exact: they spoke to us of crimes committed on West 53rd Street, or in downtown Yonkers, or, more typically, in the Bronx. And because specificity is the mistress of verisimilitude, we knew the Sewer Maniac was real; and that at this very moment was gazing out at boys walking home from playing stickball in the schoolyard or on their way back from temple.
Bear with me for a few more moments; I’m getting to the book at hand.
When I was ten years old our counselor that year took the bedtime story into a whole new dimension. Recently out of the army, armed with bongo drums and a stack of books, Uncle Dave (for all our counselors were known as “Uncle,” just as all priests are known as “Father”) was something of a hipster: a beatnik, as they were called then. His idea of a bedtime story was something by Kafka, someone completely unknown to us.
Dave would light a candle, prop his bongos between his knees, and begin telling us about a man who woke up as an insect. Tap-tippiti-tap, his drum would say as he drew us into the story. All Dave lacked was a beret and a bottle of cheap Chianti, but he always did step out after his stories for a smoke on the porch.
Kafka stared out at us from the back of the Schocken paperback, and it occurred to me, at least, that this writer could also have been a former camper-gone-nutso, with his reptilian face and those dark, depthless eyes. When I came back from camp, my mother asked what my favorite thing that summer had been. I had one word: Kafka. The rest of it, the boating, ballgames, arts and crafts, was nothing compared to “The Country Doctor,” “In the Penal Colony,” or “Metamorphosis.” I read lots of Kafka after that, until I first began writing and realized it would be best to set him aside until I’d found my own style. It was all too easy to be Kafka all over again. Put a man in a labyrinth and watch what happens.
How dangerous Kafka can be to a writer is seen in Philippe Claudel’s new novel, The Investigation, translated by John Cullen and just published by Doubleday.
Claudel is the award-winning author of several novels, as well as the writer and director of the film I’ve Loved You So Long. Claudel is still caught in my camp time thrall. He’s undoubtedly read Kafka and Beckett, and has probably seen Bertrand Blier’s film Buffet Froid one too many times. The Investigation is both a work of daring—for who would write an allegorical novel in these times when life is more surreal than our weirdest dreams—TV reality shows, anyone?—and something very like timidity, for to have turned this into a novel with three-dimensional characters and a plot of greater complexity would have taken a leap of faith and probably a few more years of work.
A man known simply as the Investigator comes to an unnamed city to look into the suicides of twenty-two people that have occurred in a complex located in the metropolis known as the Enterprise. Other characters he encounters during his frustrating, often humiliating and ultimately enlightening journey are named the Waiter, the Server, the Giantess, the Guard, and so forth. We are in the realm of allegorical fiction—the literary universe of the 15th century English play The Summoning of Everyman, where the characters are known as Everyman, God, Death, Doctor, Messenger, and so forth. Six centuries ago such works as Everyman—indeed even in the 17th century, with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress—had their place in the canon and a built-in audience of churchgoers, sinners every one of them, who would learn the right path to take in their journey to the boneyard.
But Claudel, all these centuries later, is doing much the same thing. For The Investigation begins with a portentous epigraph: For those to come so they won’t be next. Sometimes an epigraph can illuminate a text or make us glimpse the story a different way. What Claudel has done here is shine a bright spotlight on the tale he tells—too bright, in fact, like the words over Dante’s gates to hell: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. We get the picture. But with Claudel we already know we’re going to read a cautionary tale and the cautionary tale cozies up a little too uncomfortably to the allegorical tale.
But wait—there’s a second epigraph, by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the film director most famous for his wonderful Les Diaboliques, taken from the script of his later movie, L’Enfer, which is a tale of marital jealousy, bearing no thematic relation to the novel we’re about to read: Seek nothing. Forget. Which is more of the same: he is preparing us for his novel by essentially giving it away in advance.
The Investigator is hampered by a variety of obstacles—obstreperous civil servants, lousy weather and bureaucratic tangles. I began reading this thinking that I wouldn’t finish it. I like my novels to be peopled with characters of dimension and complexity, not walking, talking symbols. But from the start there is much to like here, beginning with the final sentences of the first paragraph: “The Investigator was, in a way, a disappearing person, no sooner seen than forgotten. His aspect was as insubstantial as fog, dreams, or an expelled breath, and in this he resembled billions of human beings.” There’s a lightness to the opening chapters that draws you into the book, as you hope and pray this really isn’t going to be a typical allegorical novel and that Claudel might take the genre to a whole new place. And, in a way, he does. Halfway through the novel we learn the Investigator “…had no blessed idea about how to escape from the world he was in, even though it was necessarily, indubitably false, total oneiric, utterly unlike life.” And thirty-odd pages later: “ ‘I’m in a novel,’ ” the Inspector thinks, “ ‘or a dream, and, what’s more, probably not in one of my own dreams but in another’s dream, the dream of a complex, perverse being having fun at my expense.’ ” And we think: Ah, self-awareness on the part of both author and protagonist.
That’s something different, for Kafka’s protagonists never once suspected they were mere words on a page, characters in someone else’s story. It reminds me of the little theories we’d sometimes come up with back in the sixties when high on whatever we had in hand (or mouth): our planet was nothing but a speck in god’s eye, or we were all in someone else’s dream. It was fun then. We were young. We were in thrall to the mystery of things. But then life gets in the way: the need to earn a living, the responsibilities of family, the inevitable illnesses that come our way as we age. With an allegorical hero possessing virtually no backstory, bumping up against other allegorical characters, we lack the depth and complexity of what we love most about literature, the contradictions of personality, the sheer humanness of a Hamlet or an Anna Karenina or an Emma Bovary that sends back reflections of our own frail and inconsistent selves.
Perhaps The Investigation could have gone into a whole new dimension, Matrix-like in its wonder and spectacle. But because Claudel is steeped in the allegorical tradition here (and that was what spoiled for me his Brodeck, the straining away from historical realism to some more universal meaning), he’s drawn back by the gravity of the genre.
Anyone who knows their Kafka can see where this is all leading. Tradition tells us that allegory all too often is about the human condition, often with a moral purpose, and Philippe Claudel’s novel is no different. But where Claudel is purposefully schematic—a hotel is called the Hotel, a restaurant is the Restaurant, and so forth—and though Kafka rarely gives a name to a place, we know that when K. is looking for a castle, it’s the great seat of power in Prague, overlooking streets of substance and shadow and the painful solidity of cobblestone. We know what Gregor Samsa’s room looks like, where the doors are, where his family eats while he lies agonizing on his back. It is all of a single reality, and we readers buy it, because if we know a maniac is gazing out at a street full of children’s legs from a sewer opening on West 53rd Street and not just waiting in a Sewer in a Neighborhood in an unnamed City, our emotions kick into high gear.
As a child I saw no allegory in Kafka’s stories: only tales of people caught in some increasingly complex nightmare that was as solid as the world I lived in. I could relate to that, for being a child is like finding oneself not much more than a fly caught in a web woven by others: you live according to other people’s rules, you’re punished when you break them, you go to the camps they choose for you, and in the end freedom is a mere glint far up ahead, a door opening when you turn seventeen or eighteen, or when you graduate from college. It’s a whole new web on a much bigger scale, but at least you know who you are.